“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”
By Benjamin Franklin
144 pp., Dover Publications
Reviewed by Márcia Balisciano
Founding Director, Benjamin Franklin House, London
Writing a review of one of the most famous autobiographies in history feels a bit audacious. And to the reader, it might also seem biased given I’ve devoted a significant portion of my career to progressing the subject’s legacy (as director of the world’s only remaining Franklin home). But I have followed Franklin’s example, who says in the autobiography about learning to write: “I … sometimes jumbled my Collections of [thought] into Confusion, and after some Weeks, endeavour’d to reduce them into the best Order, before I began to form the full sentences & compleat the Paper.”
Franklin began his Autobiography in 1771 while taking a sabbatical at the home of his friend Jonathan Shipley, the Bishop of St. Asaph, in England’s peaceful Berkshire countryside. He spent the days recollecting and writing, and the evenings enjoying the family’s warm domesticity.
On returning to London — as a thank you — he sent the Shipley children a squirrel, aka Skugg, procured from Philadelphia. Sometime after, Georgiana, the littlest Shipley, wrote to say it had met an untimely end following an altercation with a neighbour’s dog and asked Dr. Franklin to write a eulogy. He responded that rather than a florid memorial in the style of the day, it would be better to highlight Skugg’s achievements, including having been well-travelled. But if he had to coin an epitath, a fitting tribute was:
- Here Skugg
- Lies snug
- As a Bug
- In a Rug
In this charming exchange are strands of what we find in Franklin’s composition of his personal history: instruction, assistance, clear language, and humor. Indeed, they are themes of his life writ large.
Franklin said the first of these, instruction, is the reason for the Autobiography, which is dedicated to his son William (not yet estranged from his father for his eventual decision to remain true to the King when the time arose to choose between the Crown and the Colonies). His aim was to show how he “emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which [he] was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & Some Degree of Reputation in the World.” That he was writing for us too is evident by his admission that “Posterity may like to know” the circumstances of his life, lest his example prove “fit to be imitated.” Envisioning generations of others who might chance upon the work he declared, “this may be read or not as one pleases.” Future readers he might imagine, but 32,000 ratings and 1,800 reviews of the “Autobiography” on goodreads.com, probably not.
It’s the take on his life Franklin wants us to have. He is the ultimate self-publicist, curating the stories of his own life and influencing what we, 250 years later, think about him. To his credit, a few examples of misdeeds and failures are referenced, but they are eclipsed by positive tales of tenacity with estimable outcomes. For those of us who today create ideal portraits of our lives on social media, Franklin was there before us. As he admits, a motivation for writing the Autobiography, “(I may as well confess it, since my Denial of it will be believ’d by no body) perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own Vanity.”
“By my rambling Digressions I perceive my self to be grown old. … But one does not dress for private Company as for a publick Ball.” Though Franklin seems to argue to the contrary, the Autobiography’s narrative flows and its crisp phrases are what has made the work accessible to successive generations since first published in 1791. No stilted talk for him; plain language. His writing is unequivocal as in this example, explaining his youthful earnestness: “I spent no time in Taverns, Games, or Frolicks of any kind. And my Industry in my Business continu’d as indefatigable as it was necessary. I was in debt for my Printing-house, I had a young Family…” An interesting aside on language and diligence, Franklin says in the Autobiography that he taught himself passable French, Italian and Spanish.
More common in the period was a convoluted style as in this example from Franklin’s nemesis, Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn writing after the 1770 death of former Prime Minister George Grenville (in a 1774 Parliamentary trial, Wedderburn accused Franklin of stirring up the dispute between Britain and America “for the most malignant of purposes”): “The House has been told that the honourable gentleman, whose loss has at some time been deplored on every side of the House, was unfortunately so framed that, with good intentions, he had not sufficient liberality of mind for the direction of public affairs.”
The sum of its parts
In Part One of the Autobiography, Franklin relates how he came to be a writer and publisher: a journey from official schoolboy for just two years; to apprentice to older brother James, founder of The New England Courant; to teenager in Philadelphia who made a first sojourn to England in 1724 to learn about presses and printing and the ways of the world.
Parts Two (1784+) and Three (1788) cover his prime years in Pennsylvania building his business and making contributions to civic life. He frequently found opportunities to combine the two.
“In 1732 I first published my Almanack under the Name of Richard Saunders; it was continu’d by me about 25 Years, commonly call’d Poor Richard’s Almanack. I endeavour’d to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap’d considerable Profit from it vending annually near ten Thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any Neighbourhood in the Province being without it, I consider’d it as a proper Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People, who bought scare any other Books. I therefore filled all the little Spaces … with Proverbial Sentences, chiefly such as inculcated Industry and Frugality.”
He advanced The Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper he came to own, using it “as another Means of communicating Instruction.” In its pages he included “Socratic Dialogue tending to prove, that, whatever might be his parts and Abilities, a vicious Man could not properly be called a Man of Sense. And a Discourse on Self denial, showing that Virtue was not Secure, till its Practice became a Habitude. …”
Of his own improvement, he tells of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” Resolution, sincerity, justice, tranquillity, frugality, and of course for Franklin, industry, are among 13 character virtues he strove to emulate. Aiming for “moral perfection” he soon found it “a more difficult task than I imagined.” He concentrated on one virtue per week and “left the other virtues to their ordinary chance.” “I was surprised,” he wrote “to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
He highlighted his role procuring supplies and lodging for troops during the French and Indian War and describes a flavor of his scientific interests and experiments. The latter provide him an opportunity to practice something he learned as a boy, described in Part One: to adopt “Terms of Modest Diffidence” rather than direct confrontation. He did not compose a retort, Franklin said, for an Abbé Nollet, a French natural philosopher — as those with an interest in science were called — who took written exception to his electrical assumptions. Rather, “I concluded to let my Papers shift for themselves; believing it was better to spend what time I could spare from my public Business in making new Experiments, rather than in Disputing about those already made.”
Part Four (1789/1790) covers his return to London in July 1757. In particular, his negotiations on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly with recalcitrant proprietor, Thomas Penn. The goal was to increase the Penn family contribution to the upkeep and defense of their eponymous colony. It did not take Franklin long to realise it would be a trying assignment. Not just his mission with the Penns, but the larger task of finding a third way between colonial home rule and royal diktat. An episode he relates shortly after settling on Craven Street (where he would stay for nearly 16 years — today the world’s only remaining Franklin home) reveals the prevailing view in the British government on the eve of the Revolution: the colonists were ungrateful upstarts, disrespectful of the King’s rightful authority. He is introduced to Lord Granville, chief advisor to the sovereign George III and head of the King’s Privy Council (this is one of many examples in the “Autobiography” of introductions to and often support — though not in this case — from persons of note; though, like filings to a magnet, Franklin drew people of all kinds to him throughout his life). Franklin recalled Granville said this:
You Americans have wrong Ideas of the Nature of your Constitution; you contend that the King’s Instructions to his Governors are not Laws, and think yourselves at Liberty to regard or disregard them at your own Discretion. But those Instructions are not like the Pocket Instructions given to a Minister going abroad, for regulating his Conduct in some trifling Point of Ceremony. They are drawn up by Judges learned in the Laws; they are then considered, debated & perhaps amended in Council after which they are signed by the King. They are then considered, debated & perhaps amended in Council, after which they are signed by the King. They are then so far as relates to you, the Law of the Land for THE KING IS THE LEGISLATOR OF THE COLONIES.
Franklin responded that “this was new Doctrine to me. I had always understood from our Charters, that our Laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the King for his Royal Assent, but that being once given the King could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent Laws without his Assent, so neither could he make a Law for them without theirs.” This was the crux of difference that led to a war Franklin unsuccessfully tried, through the pen and diplomacy, to avert.
Author and essayist, D. H. Lawrence took exception to what he saw as Franklin’s prima facie commercial proclivity. He complained in his 1923 piece, Studies in Classic American Literature, “the summum bonum of his ethic, the earning of more and more money. … is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.” Not so for those who have used tenets gleaned from the Autobiography to build their empires, including financial services firm, Franklin Resources (whose principal, Charles B. Johnson, recently made a $250 million contribution to Yale, which awarded Franklin an honorary degree, in order to create a new Benjamin Franklin residential college).
The “Autobiography” tantalizingly ends mid-sentence. For me it is especially so, as Franklin is discussing his fracas with the Penns after arriving at Craven Street. What more he might have told of his London years we’ll never know. He died in 1790 without completing it.
But finished or not, it is a powerful work that reveals, entertains and, for the majority, inspires. In my life with Franklin, I always prefer to give him the last word. With his characteristic humour, he wrote in Part One, “I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the First.”
Márcia Balisciano is founding director of Benjamin Franklin House in London. She has been responsible for opening and running Franklin’s only remaining home as a dynamic museum and educational facility focused on history and innovation, which opened to the public for the first time on Franklin’s 300th birthday in 2006. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics. She was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours List. She lives in London with her family, which includes two small boys with a love of reading.